In the media frenzy that followed last month’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, CNN erroneously identified Ryan Lanza as the shooter. In fact, the murders, which included their mother, had been committed by Ryan’s brother, Adam. The source of the error was an ID that had been found on the shooter’s person, but the story had spread widely in advance of the correction.
Working on the premise that CNN’s report was correct, Slate tweeted a link to the Facebook profile of a Ryan Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut. That initiated a deluge of messages and reports that continued until the user finally dismantled his account. Despite having been set to private, screen captures and photos from the account quickly spread across social media, ultimately making their way into coverage by major media outlets.
According to family members, the New York Post was duped in interviews by a Facebook user impersonating Ryan Lanza. Heedless of the impropriety of doing so, CNN reporters interviewed a number of school children about the shooting. The New York Times live-tweeted the aftermath, including pictures taken from the police cordon.
Social media forms a common thread in these stories, where it plays, with differing levels of directness, four distinct roles:
- It is occasionally the tool that makes misinformation possible, as in the case of the Facebook user who impersonated Ryan Lanza to the New York Post. That’s a case of the platform tempting us to regard an online profile as confirmation of the speaker’s identity. As the Gay Girl in Damascus episode demonstrated, it’s a more common temptation than we sometimes realize.
- It is sometimes treated as a salient detail in a larger story. Sometimes it is. In 2010, when a software consultant named Joseph Stack deliberately crashed a single-engine airplane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, the news media reported on a suicide note that Stack had posted to his website earlier that morning. But online media is increasingly treated as worth reporting on, even in advance of the most cursory analysis. It quickly becomes a temptation to misreport. Since Ryan Lanza was not the shooter, there was little chance of a Stack-like confession appearing there. Nevertheless, high-profile news outlets spread the link as though the existence of the profile was, in itself, worth reporting.
- Because it is often the mode by which misreported stories spread, social media also serves to amplify the reach of misinformation. It is doubtful that Slate‘s dissemination of the wrong Facebook page would have reached nearly so many readers had it been limited to a page on Slate.com. What really catalyzed its spread was the ability to tweet and retweet the misinformation in personalized Twitter feeds.
- Finally, in every case, social media has increased pressure on news outlets to run stories and report details as quickly as possible. That has steadily eaten away at the caution of some journalists and their editors. A generation ago, journalists typically had an entire business day to gather facts and vet sources. By contrast, CNN is reporting on a minute-by-minute basis, and errs on the side timeliness to avoid getting scooped. In part, that’s a native facet of the 24-hour cable cycle, and competition from Fox and MSNBC exert their own pressure. But they also feel the burden of making news viral in a culture increasingly focused on social media platforms. So while interviewing young children on the scene may have no immediate tie to social media, the demands of social media no doubt contributed to the hastiness of that decision.
How can we discourage these practices? Some simply require greater caution on the part of journalists in vetting their own stories. It falls to the Post, for example, to make sure that they don’t get taken in by hoax accounts on Facebook. Step one is simply regarding social media sources as less reliable than sources that can be vetted directly.
At the same time, journalism is a business, and is thus shaped by market forces. That can be problematic, as when journalists are tempted into bias by their advertising commitments, but it can also work to our advantage. Faulty reporting is driven, in part, by the implicit promise of social media—a viral story means more clicks, and clicks can be converted into ad revenue—but that promise would go unrealized without our involvement. By being more responsible in how we as readers use social media, we can send a message.
For example: The Facebook link Slate tweeted was rapidly circulated on Twitter, long after Slate‘s own retraction. From a journalistic point of view, it was a failure, but it did manage to spread Slate‘s handle across social media. From a social marketing point of view, then, the benefits may outweigh the negatives.
While the editors at Slate likely would not condone spreading false information as a marketing strategy, the site’s willingness to broadcast an unconfirmed detail shows that social media is important enough a part of their overall approach that they’re willing to risk it. They rely for the reach of their Twitter account on our willingness to retweet those details. Ergo, if we want to discourage loose journalistic practices, we can deprive them of that temptation by refusing to spread some stories through social media.
That’s not to say that we should eschew social media as a way of sharing stories, but we need a form of triage—some set of standards that will help us decide which stories to share. Spreading the initial story—”shooting at a Connecticut elementary school”—might have helped someone, particularly if that someone was on their way to drop their child off at school. Most of the details that followed were not helpful. Some, like “Slate finds killer’s Facebook profile,” were profoundly unhelpful.
My goal here is to propose a simple form of triage that any responsible adult can use to help them decide whether or not to spread any given news story they come across. It consists of three questions:
- How will spreading this news help others?
- How might a mistake here hurt others?
- How new is this news?
We can break that down a little more. When we ask how spreading a given news story might help others, for example, there are three general answers on which to concentrate. In order of importance, they are:
- It could save lives;
- It could save people major trouble—that can mean major financial losses, injury, heartbreak, etc.;
- It could make their lives more convenient;
- I don’t know.
Now here’s where the triage system starts to really change how we look at social news. Against those answers, we can weigh our answers to the second question: How badly could others be hurt if the story we’re spreading ends up being wrong? There, too, we have four general answers:
- It could cost lives;
- It could cause major trouble for some people;
- It could make their lives less convenient;
- I don’t know.
Write the two out in a chart if it helps. If you get a lower number for question #2 than you get for question #1, don’t spread the story. For example, if we’re honest with ourselves, our answer to the question of how anyone could be helped by a link to the Newtown shooter’s private Facebook page, the answer has to be, “I don’t know.” And when we ask ourselves how someone might be hurt by the same link, the answer ranges anywhere from “I don’t know” to “major trouble.”
Finally, there’s the third question: How new is this news? It’s there mostly to remove any ambiguity. If we end up with equivalent answers to both of the first two questions, then we can fall back on the third to break the tie. The newer the story, the less inclined we should be to spread it. Give it some time—maybe the balance between the first two questions will shift. Someone may even correct the details.
Earlier, I suggested that there were four distinct ways in which social media encourages news outlets to misreport and spread misinformation. To that list, add one more item. By allowing the rest of us to think of ourselves as the distributors of important news, it has encouraged us to be naive about what we spread and how. By reminding us to think about the nature of our involvement, social news triage encourages a more sophisticated approach.
It’s a case of being the change you want to see in the world. As we grow more sophisticated toward social news, the media outlets that inform us will have no choice but to be more responsible about what they report.